By Harrison Boxley
"Star of the Silent Screen: Lon Chaney, Sr."
“I could talk on my ﬁngers, but
as I grew older, I found it unnecessary. We conversed with our
faces, with our eyes.”- Lon Chaney.
As an actor, I am often reminded
to use my facial expression and hands to convey the feeling or
emotions that I want my audience to comprehend and share.
Perhaps, the greatest actor known for his facial expressions was
Lon Chaney, Sr. He was an artist with an impressive repertoire
of gestures and facial and body movements that expressed his
thoughts, passions, sensitivities and pains to those who
regarded him. Lon Chaney, Sr. was a star of the silent ﬁlm era
his ability to use his acting and make up skills to achieve
continual transformation acquired him the moniker of ‘The Man of
a Thousand Faces’.
Born on April 1, 1883 in Colorado
Springs, Colorado, Leonidas Frank Chaney was the second of four
children in the Chaney family. His father, Frank H. Chaney was
rendered deaf at the tender age of two following a childhood
illness, he professed to recalling some sounds and noises. Emma
Alice Kennedy, the much adored mother of Lon, had been born
deaf, her father Jonathan Ralston Kennedy founded the Colorado
School for the Deaf and Blind in 1874, and it was here while
working as a teacher that she meet Frank. When Lon was only nine
years old his mother was stricken with inflammatory rheumatism
rendering her incapacitated and tormented.
Lon and his siblings learned to
communicate with their parents using facial expressions, hand
gestures and a little sign language without ever uttering a
word. He found himself able to look at his world around him as
an outsider, while still participating in all that was going on.
This ability helped him to choose character roles that he could
empathize with and ultimately perform them notably well.
Two of Chaney’s best commemorated
ﬁlms and masterpieces of the silent era were “The Hunchback of
Notre Dame”(1923) and “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Chaney
carved distinctive personalities able to not only repel the
audiences but generate immeasurable amounts of empathy with them
as well. The use of make up and facial expression allowed Chaney
to completely distort his own face into any character he wished
to become. One of his other impressive roles was that of the
legless criminal in “The Penalty” (1920) in order to simulate
the look of a double-amputee, Chaney created a leather harness
to strap his legs behind him so that he walked around on his
knees. Such a device caused a great deal of pain “When I had my
legs strapped up and couldn’t bear it that way more than 20
minutes at a time. It sometimes takes a good deal of imagination
to forget your physical sufferings”. (Chaney) Hollywood loved
Chaney and his quirky characters. His gift for playing a vast
array of characters even made him the subject of a popular joke
at the time: “Don’t step on that spider! It might be Lon
Sadly Chaney died at the height
of his career, at the age of 47. He had appeared in
approximately 160 ﬁlms and was arguably the most successful star
of the silent ﬁlm era. Seven weeks after his only talking
picture wrapped, Chaney succumbed to lung cancer. Studios all
throughout Hollywood observed a minute of silence in honor of an
unparalleled actor. Wallace Beery, a fellow actor said that
Cheney “was the one man I knew who could walk with the kings and
not lose the common touch”. (Beery)
“Lon Chaney. Biography.” Chaney Entertainment. n.p. n.d.
"Lon Chaney. The Man of a Thousand Faces.” American Masters.
Michael F. Blake. Thirteen. Feb 2012.
Boehm, Volker. “Biography for Lon Chaney.” IMDB Pro. Amazon. n.d.